Leadership Myths and Realities

Over 25 years ago, Barry Cohen and I published a book titled Leadership Myths and Realities. Since that time we have held a variety of senior leadership positions and have continued to study the Art and Science of Leadership. This post will review the 10 myths and realities we wrote about in the late 80s, discuss their current relevance, and suggest any new myths and realities that have emerged. To be clear, myths usually contain some degree of truth. The point in this post is that, while the myth may be necessary, it is not necessarily sufficient—it’s the expected table stakes. The reality suggests the additional possibilities that real leaders should take into account.

p. 101, the "Bell telephone magazine" (1922), courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images

Myth: Leaders invest with financial capital.
Reality: Leaders invest in human and information capital.

This myth and corresponding reality are more prevalent today than they were 25 years ago. Yes, we are seeing more and more mergers and acquisitions and corporate profits are soaring, but the real leaders and game-changers are those who invest in human capital and are constantly on top of new trends in science and technology. Human capital can be defined as those people who can respond rapidly to new changes and generate new sources of gain. After Robert Carkhuff introduced the terms in early 80s, the words human capital, information capital, and organizational capital have become common parlance. Most people refer to the time in which we are living as the Information Age. Carkhuff, our mentor for more than 40 years, suggests that we are really living in the Age of Ideation. Information that doesn’t result in new ideas is not particularly helpful. Effective human processing is required to transform overwhelming information into useful ideas. Therefore, real leaders are not only adept at making sound financial investments, they also make wise investments in human, information, and organizational capital.

Myth: Leaders are risk takers.
Reality: Leaders think creatively.

There has definitely been a shift in the last 25 years toward innovation and creativity. The difference between risk taking and creative thinking is that risk taking tends to more like taking wild leaps into the unknown independent of the mission, whereas creative thinking means systematically processing multiple sources of information and generating ideas that advance the mission. Enron is a great example of risk taking that ended in disaster. The downfall of Enron was caused by highly intelligent people who were reinforced for taking enormous risks unrelated to the core business. More recently, the risk taking behind the financial crisis was fueled by dastardly manipulations of people (pushing mortgages on people who couldn’t afford them) and products (derivatives, CDOs, junk bonds etc.). Even now, corporate and personal greed continue to push us into very vulnerable and risky territory. Real leaders take appropriate risks but also think creatively and take into account the potential implications of what they are doing. We are seeing more incubators being used to generate new ideas. We are seeing universities, such as Cornell, starting Entrepreneurial Institutes. Almost all organizations are seeking ways to inculcate innovation in their cultures. And remember, in the last 25 years, we have seen the explosive growth of Apple, Google, and Facebook – all of which were based on creative thinking at its best. While Steve Jobs can be justly criticized for some of his leadership deficits, there is no question he was the epitome of creative thinking. His innovations transformed, and are continuing to transform, several industries.

Myth: Leaders manage by walking around.
Reality: Leaders relate constructively.

While this myth and reality are as true today as they were 25 years ago, there have been some major variations on how they are played out. Now leaders are more likely to surf around a virtual environment instead of walking around the shop floor or visiting cubicles. Virtual visibility and accessibility have increased while physical presence has decreased. More importantly, the need to relate constructively has never been more necessary given the amount of time people spend gazing into their smart phones, tablets, or computer screens. The problem is that managers are still not particularly astute at picking up on non-verbal cues, listening attentively, and responding accurately to an employee’s experience – it’s ok to “walk around,” but you have to know what to say when engage staff in conversation. Constructive relationships are based on quality conversations that are team member focused and often team member led. The best selling Situational Leadership II Course developed by Pat Zigarmi at The Ken Blanchard Companies has established a dominant position in a huge market by teaching leaders how to relate more constructively with staff. This trend needs to continue.

Myth: Leaders manage change.
Reality: Leaders initiate strategic changes.

While this myth and its corresponding reality have never been truer, there are still tons of money being pored into managing change vs. leading change. Managing change implies a reactive approach. Leaders are desperately trying to stay on top of all the changes with which they are constantly bombarded from disruptive technologies to climate change. It’s essentially a hopeless case of Wack-A-Mole. Just as you think you’ve managed one change, another pops up. The reality is that leaders need to anticipate changes and stay ahead of the game. That means initiating strategic changes that are ahead of the curve. This is true in the geo-political arena as well. If world leaders try to manage all the changes that are taking place in the Middle East, it is a hopeless cause. They need to work together to initiate strategic changes that give peace and prosperity a chance.

Bell Telephone Magazine, Internet ArchivesMyth: Leaders develop people through training.
Reality: Leaders create an environment that nurtures personal development.

Organizations still spend billions of dollars training their people. Unfortunately, most of the training is incomplete, over-lapping, or redundant. As an example, one of the largest banks in the world just invested millions of dollars training people in how to create a trustworthy organization. They put all mid-level managers through intensive training in an attempt to change the negative perceptions that the public held toward its banking practices. Strange as it may seem, this same bank continued to engage in unethical and misleading practices, not seeming to appreciate the impact of leaders telling employees to do one thing and then doing completely the opposite themselves. Real change comes when a serious effort is made to align the culture with the strategy and to create a healthy, innovative, ethical, and productive work environment. In the last 25 years, I have seen many companies spend a lot of time, energy, and resources trying to change their cultures. What I haven’t seen is a willingness to measure that change and to form a “soul committee” whose sole responsibility is to point out the gaps between stated goals and day-to-day behaviors. Unless leaders are willing to embrace “court jesters” they will continue to pour dollars down the sinkhole by assuming a training program will achieve it’s intended results without paying attention to the culture.

Myth: Leaders emphasize product quality.
Reality: Leaders emphasize product, process, people, and customer benefits.

There is no question that product quality is still required to be successful in this competitive global environment. Apple’s amazing success story is built on excellent products. Automobile companies can’t compete with cars that don’t match the quality of cars in Europe and Asia. Pharmaceutical companies depend on the public perception that their products are safe and of the highest quality. J&J actually turned the Tylenol disaster into a public relations victory by showing the world how committed it was to providing quality products. But, especially now, quality products are not enough. There has to be an equal focus on process, people, technology, culture, and customer benefits. The success of Lean Start-Ups depends on early customer verification of the benefits a new product provides. As the need for continuous generativity increases, people and process assume more and more importance.

Myth: Leaders motivate employees.
Reality: Leaders free exemplars.

Not much has changed in the last 25 years on this myth and reality pair. Leaders still don’t tailor rewards according to the level of functioning of their employees and people who are outside the normal curve are more likely to be punished than freed. Let’s start with the first problem. Motivational strategies need to be tailored to the level of functioning of the person you want to motivate. Leaders usually try to motivate detractors with carrots and sticks. They attempt to motivate observers with tangible rewards, i.e. if you do “x”, I will give you “y.” Participants (solid performers who meet expectations) are usually recognized for excellent performance. Leaders usually try to motivate contributors with more responsibility and accountability. And leaders attempt to motivate leaders by freeing them to initiate. The second problem (punishing exemplars) also still exists. When someone is performing 3 standard deviations from the mean, they are more likely to be punished than rewarded. I have plenty of evidence to support this claim. I was once asked to review all of the leadership development programs of one of the leading pharmaceutical companies in the world. In one class, the instructor showed a video of a team on which one person was clearly the most intelligent and most productive member. Instead of freeing that person to generate new possibilities that would help the company, they punished him for not being a “team player.” The video was intended to convey the point that conforming to the norm was more important than initiating new ideas. The reality is that leaders can’t motivate employees; they can only align rewards with their level of functioning. Leaders can inspire employees as role models and by articulating an aspirational vision, but they can’t motivate them with empty motivational speeches, blanket programs, or by insisting they conform to the norm. The reality is that leaders can create optimally motivating environments by framing the work people are doing as purposeful and meaningful, by fostering collaboration, by adding variety, by supporting growth, and by providing opportunities for development.

Myth: Leaders always seek consensus.
Reality: Leaders make fine discriminations on how to lead.

Leaders still tend to be “one-shot cowboys.” They latch onto a leadership style that fits their comfort zone and then stay with that style independent of staff reactions. The best leaders not only make effective choices about when to be authoritative, persuasive, participative, consultative, or empowering, they also have a large repertoire of responses for each of those styles. Fine discriminations are based on accurate assessments of the commitment, capability, and cultural background of the person with whom they are dealing. The pendulum is always swinging back and forth from more supportive to more directive. One is as likely to fail as the other without an accurate discrimination of the situational requirements as well as the motivation and skill of the person it is supposed to effect. Situational Leadership II[1] has made a significant contribution to addressing this myth and creating a new reality, but there is still a long way to go. The reality is that command and control leadership can be the most effective style in certain situations, particularly when a leader is setting strategy or there is a need to teach someone a skill as quickly as possible.

Myth: Leaders manage time.
Reality: Leaders do the right things right.

We continue to hear a great deal about time management and new approaches for making the best use of your time. Simple approaches like writing down priorities for the day and then reflecting for a few minutes each hour on how well you are focusing on those priorities have helped leaders make sure they are spending their time on the right tasks. An obsession with efficiency, however, can get in the way of what’s most effective. With conditions changing as rapidly as they are, great leaders need to process information constantly and decide what requires their focus. Can you imagine being the President of the United States and trying to decide where to invest your time. Should you focus on ensuring that people have health care, containing an Ebola crisis in Africa, dealing with a terrorist threat in Syria, finding a two state solution for Israel, improving our educational system, restoring our infrastructure, responding to a natural disaster (e.g. fires, hurricanes, etc.) or attending to a racial issue in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s endless. And leaders of most organizations face long lists of daunting challenges each day as well. While it is true that effective leaders need to manage their time, the reality is that they need to make conscious choices about investing their precious time where it will have the most impact. This myth-reality pair has only become more imperative in the last 25 years as leaders are expected to do more with less.

Myth: Leaders support individual wellness programs.
Reality: Leaders develop healthy organizational cultures.

This list of myths and realities would not be complete without addressing the issue of wellness. 25 years ago, we developed the most comprehensive, culture-based program in the country. At the time, national health care costs were still far short of one trillion dollars per year. Now they are approaching three trillion dollars. Corporations are paying a large share of those costs. At AT&T, we not only demonstrated cost savings of over 300 million dollars over a 10 year period based on reduction of risks between a control group and an experimental group, we also demonstrated significant gains in job satisfaction and productivity. Even with those results and with rapidly escalating health care costs, corporate leaders have not adopted comprehensive, culture-based solutions for creating a healthier, more productive workforce. When I say culture based, I mean auditing the norms and values of the workplace as well as blood pressure and cholesterol levels of the workers. At AT&T, we initiated the Total Life Concept (TLC) program[2] with a Managing for Health and Productivity seminar that helped leaders understand how their behaviors contributed to either high-level wellness or low-level worseness. After 25 years, organizations are still stuck in the rut of fitness and stress programs without addressing the cause of sedentary living and excessive stressdysfunctional leadership behaviors.

So it appears that the 10 leadership myths and realities we proposed 25 years ago still have relevance today. Based on our experience and changing economic conditions, we would now add a few more pairs of myths and realities to the list:

Myth: Leaders stay focused on how to get things done.
Reality: Leaders keep everyone focused on why the work needs to be done.

Yes, leaders are expected to get results. They need to be clear about what needs to get done and must possess a good sense of how to get it done. More importantly, however, is they need to stick with the principle of purpose before action—to encourage people to ask “why?” before they rush to judgment and create detailed action plans. Why will consumers love this product or service? Why do people need a smart watch? Why is solution A better than solution B? Why do we believe we will have a different outcome in Syria than we had in Iraq or Afghanistan—or Vietnam for that matter? Taking the time to reflect on an action before jumping in may be one of the strongest requirements for leaders. Leaders need to be resourceful, respectful, and restrained. Exercising restraint in the face of pressure means taking the time to live in the right question instead of jumping into the wrong action. The best leaders are decisive AND accurate. Being accurate demands taking time to reflect and ask why.

Myth: Leadership is a function of one person.
Reality: Leadership is a team of committed and complementary people.

While there are times when one person needs to step up and take charge, the most profound changes occur when everyone assumes leadership for accomplishing the mission. Clearly, the world can be thankful that Churchill assumed command of the situation in Europe and refused to negotiate with Hitler and the Nazis in World War II. In most cases, however, servant leadership produces greater results than hero leadership. In my book, Spiritual Leadership, I differentiate between sole leadership vs. soul leadership. Developing a diverse group of highly committed people who can create an organizational soul is preferential to one person flying solo and going it alone on all matters.

Myth: Leaders create followers.
Reality: Leaders create leaders.

Charismatic leaders who stir up the passion of their followers may yield short-term results, but most gurus end up being corrupted. Their egos usually lead them to make self-indulgent decisions and to give in to narcissistic behaviors. Real leaders inspire people to mobilize behind a cause, but devote most of their energy to developing leaders who can sustain and elevate the mission over the long term. Followers tend to become dependent on the leader and competitive with each other for the leader’s favor. In the worst cases, the exchange is favors for favor. People who grow into leadership roles tend to be more concerned with making a contribution and making a difference than stroking the leader’s ego.

Myth: Leaders help people get what they want.
Reality: Leaders help people do what they need.

Good leaders usually are tuned into the dreams and aspirations of people who work with them. And they look for opportunities for them to develop the skills they need to accomplish what they want. Great leaders inspire others to raise the bar and accomplish more than what they may have thought was possible. If you believe that the purpose of life is grow, then leaders help people do what they need to do to grow – even if there is initial resistance and doubt. Great leaders help people align behind a mission that is greater than themselves, whether the mission relates to the team, the organization, the community, or the world.

What myths and realities would you add?


[1] Leadership and the One Minute Manager, Blanchard, Kenneth H., Patricia Zigarmi, and Drea Zigarmi. New York: Morrow, 1985. Print.
[2] “Health impacts of AT&T’s Total Life Concept (TLC) program after five years,” Holt, MC, M McCauley, and Paul D. Am J Health Promot. 1995 Jul-Aug;9(6): 421-5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10150532.







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